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Book Review: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Book Review: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Originally published in London by Picador, 2004

US Paperback edition Harcourt, Inc., 2006

by Rory Stewart

About walking through remote regions of planet earth . . .

(Note: ExperiencePlus! is not planning walking tours in Afghanistan any time soon. But when we do, they will be great tours!)

The Places in Between by Rory StewartMy seventh grade geographer teacher, Shirley Gagliardi, left a lasting impression on me including two images that have lingered in the back of my mind for almost forty-five years now. One is Tasmania, that lonely island south of Australia. I visualize it floating in the fog not far off the coast of Antarctica (in reality it is only at about 42 degrees south latitude). The other is Afghanistan, that lonely country in the Hindu Kush Mountains in Central Asia east of Iran and north of Pakistan. I’ve not yet been to either place.

So I’m envious of a young Scotsman who had the opportunity to walk across Afghanistan. That he did it six weeks after the fall of the Taliban in January 2002 makes his book even more intriguing. You have to wonder why someone would do this when local authorities assured Stewart that “there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.” Off he walked.

I should clarify that I am envious that Stewart has been able to visit Afghanistan while I have not. I am not envious of the journey he undertook in mid-winter. Indeed, the subtitle of this book should be “idiot Scot walks across Afghanistan in winter.” Still, I’m going to recommend that you pick this book up and read it, not because it’s a great book (it isn’t) but because we know so little about this part of the world, that this is as good a place to start learning as anyplace.

Stewart undertook his walk after having just completed sixteen months of walking across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. His original intent had been to walk from Iran into Afghanistan but the Iranians took his visa away and the Taliban refused him entry. So he changed direction and headed to Pakistan. After September 11, 2001 and the eventual fall of the Taliban, he was scheduled to fly home to Scotland. Instead, he drove to Herat and began walking across central Afghanistan to complete his epic journey. As he explains it in the introduction to his book, “I was starting in January because I did not want to wait five months for the snow to clear.” Youthful impatience that might have easily gotten him killed.

So he walked. He represented himself, variously, as a tourist, an historian, an academic, a civil engineer, and an anthropologist. Later, back in Scotland, he described his purpose as “. . . to try to put myself in the background and get a feeling, almost an anthropological feeling, of how it is in villages in very remote places, how they see the world, how people see Islam, for example. . ." (Guy Dixon).

This was not a comfortable walk. Stewart very nearly froze to death, suffered from diarrhea or dysentery for a good half of his four-week walk, and might easily have been murdered by some of the villagers he encountered along the way. Of those same villagers he writes: “A number were greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant, and cruel. Some of them had robbed or killed others; many of them threatened me and begged from me.” This, written in the forward to the book, is the sentiment of a man who later was made deputy governor of the province of Amarah and Senior Advisor in Nasiriyah, Iraq under the coalition forces in 2003.

This remote area of Afghanistan was involved in a war with Russia from 1980 through 1989, then subject to local warlords in a civil war for another seven years, then subjected to the conservative Taliban whiplash beginning in 1996. When Stewart walked through here the region had known nothing but invasion, war, and devastation for well over two decades. Ninety-five percent of the villages in the region had no electricity, hence no television and no access to information about the outside world. The entire world view of most of the people he met was dictated by their reading of or, more often, what they’d been told about the Koran.

But we learn little about this in Stewart’s account, despite his avowed goal of “feeling” how these folks “see the world. . . “ Instead we read about the trials and tribulations of his journey. About how he literally rushes from village to village in the dark and in the snow seeking refuge and shelter from the elements. More often than not he is granted refuge in the local mosque since guest rooms in villages that have been devastated during two decades of war are rare.

Here in the Rocky Mountain west avalanches kill more people than any other natural disaster. And on the Great Plains avalanches don’t kill many people but hypothermia does. So it is, quite honestly, incomprehensible to me that an educated, thinking human would undertake such a journey in the middle of winter. Stewart doesn’t adequately explain why he did this. As he writes in his preface, “I’m not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps I did it because it was an adventure. But it was the most interesting part of my journey across Asia.”

Here’s a fellow who spent sixteen months walking across Asia. He slept in 500 different villages before his Afghanistan leg. What did he learn in those first sixteen months? What conversations did he have with villagers in “normal” villages that he hasn’t yet told us. Apparently he found his Afghan walk more important to write about and I expect the publisher found it more interesting and timely. That’s too bad as I expect Stewart has a lot more to tell us that would help us understand this part of the world. I hope he’ll eventually find time to write down his thoughts and observations about his longer walk.

Five hundred villages are a lot. Dr. Maury Albertson, professor emeritus of Civil Engineering at Colorado State University and one of the founders of the Peace Corps in 1960 is fond of pointing out that 95% of the world’s population lives in villages such as these. Did I write “fond?” I should clarify that Dr. Albertson is passionate about this message, if not obsessed. I’d like to hear a conversation between Albertson, who has worked in villages around the world, and Stewart, who “slept in 500 villages.” What might Maury teach Rory?

Stewart’s book is sensationalist and exotic. Perhaps this is why it has received such acclaim (the New York Times reviewer, Tom Bissel billed it “a striding, glorious book. But it’s more than great journalism. It’s a great travel narrative”). I disagree, but it’s still worth reading. Perhaps it will get you thinking about 95% of the world’s population living in villages like this. Dr. Albertson would like that.

More about Rory Stewart:

NPR interview on Fresh Air

The publisher’s interview with Rory Stewart after his new book Prince of the Marshes.

Read Dr. Maury Albertson’s Village Earth Definition of Sustainability here